Mother of all stories
'She'd be awake long after we'd fall asleep correcting tutorials, completing conference papers, finishing a painting, writing a poem'... Nandana Sen writes on how her mother made life more beautiful
It's no secret that most of the 'special days' we celebrate have either been invented or glorified for business. But for those of us who grew up during the reign of Hallmark, isn't that integral to the world as we know it?
There's comfort in the familiar, even if it is banal. For example, would I have preferred an adolescence without the ritual of collecting and comparing Valentines received every year? No. More disquieting than the commercial aspect, is the fact that somehow these special days get mired in clichés even in the way we ourselves pay tribute to them. Hallmark is just doing its business, but am I letting that shape the way I think and talk about these days?
Poet and novelist Nabaneeta Dev Sen lives in Kolkata, and has received numerous National Awards including the Padmashri, the Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Bangla Academy.
What are those smaller, almost-forgotten memories not the grand acts of sacrifice, edification, or sustenance not the grace under pressure, nor the courage in crisis but all the little moments that make them utterly indispensable?
My first semester in college. She arrived in between her conferences, suitcases and admirers in tow. Refusing abundant offers of hospitality in Boston, she shared (and immediately redecorated) the one-and-a-third rooms assigned to my two roommates and me. She stood in line every morning, in our noisy dormitory, to claim her three minutes in the shower. The bigger bath was opposite our room; the other, down the hall in the other wing.
She left after a week, just as I was getting used to finding her hip-length hair in my comb, and turning every head in the one-thousand-strong Freshman Union when she swept into dinner with me, gliding in like a queen, like she always does.
A few weeks later, we hit mid-term exams and I was a mess. I overslept the first day, found the shower occupied and raced to the other bathroom in panic. As I stepped onto freezing tiles and fiddled with the cranky knob that spurted cold water for red and boiling for blue, something miraculously familiar caught my eye. A crimson dot on the narrow grey wall. Her well-traveled bindi, carefully placed beyond reach of the spray. In a flash I could hear her laugh and smell her smell, I could feel the tension in my neck melt into the mist surrounding me. That perfect circle of red gave evidence, on the mildewed wall, of her always being there. Far away, so close.
Elle. Eternity. Tresor. Poeme. J'Adore. Happy. Forever and Ever. Why do all her favorite perfumes seem to be named about her? No matter which one she wears, she always smells the same, wondrously. It's that essence of Ma, that adjective-defying, all too familiar fragrance that lingers in her sari before it's washed, that seeps out of her suitcase as soon as she opens it. That greeted us every evening, along with her whistled code, when we raced downstairs to let her in after work. She'd be awake long after we'd fall asleep correcting tutorials, completing conference papers, finishing a painting, writing a poem. I never knew when she came to bed, but through my dreams I could smell that Ma-smell when she vigorously rubbed Nivea on our sleep-heavy faces.
Last year, I pulled out a big blue book from our Kolkata shelf, "365 Bed-time Stories." When I opened it, out fell a red-gold rush of leaves — oaks, maples and ferns collected in London when I was a toddler. Ma, Didi and I gathered them in the woods at the bottom of the hill where we lived. One night, as she was reading to me, I interrupted Ma. "What are fairy wings made of? Feathers? Butterfly wings? Or huge petals?" "Well, there are all kinds of fairies," she said, "like there are all kinds of people." "Do all fairies look like you?" I persisted. "I don't think so," she smiled, "Fairies are very, very beautiful." "But Ma," I protested, "You're the most beautiful person in the world." She laughed as she drew heavy curtains over French windows. "Every little girl thinks that about their mother, Toompush."
Well, I've grown up a bit, Ma. My world has grown up a lot. I left home as a child, made beautiful friends who became my family. In my industry I've met many beautiful faces. I've fallen in love with beautiful minds. You've grown up too. More books published, many awards won. More world tours (some with me, when we disagreed on everything). A few more panic attacks about your stubborn daughters. Around your eyes, a few more lines celebrating years of full-throated joy.
And we've fought. I've cried when you haven't understood. I've begged you not to nag. I've yelled at you when I was upset with another. I've watched, with panic, as tears welled up in your ever-adolescent eyes. But thanks to a journalist's routine if unremarkable Mother's Day query, memories I'd filed away as unremarkable, slipped out all in a tangle. I realised that even if you had not been my mother, even if that most precious accident of birth had by rights been the beginning of someone else's story, even if I'd met you in any of your other capacities as a writer, professor, friend, humanitarian, painter, or even as a stranger on a train you would be the most beautiful person I'd ever met.
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